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DEP urged to toughen drilling rules

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Environmental and citizen groups on Tuesday evening urged the Tomblin administration to toughen its proposed rules to implement West Virginia's new law on large-scale natural gas drilling.

Representatives of several statewide organizations turned out for a state Department of Environmental Protection hearing on the rules, which are being prepared for consideration during next year's legislative session.

Jim Kotcon, chairman of the state Sierra Club's Marcellus Shale committee, said DEP needs to strengthen the rules to combat the impression that the agency's Office of Oil and Gas is too tight with the industry it regulates.

"There is a perception that issuing permits is a much higher priority than inspecting sites," said Kotcon, who said DEP should rewrite the rule to mandate periodic well-site reviews by agency inspectors.

Kotcon also noted that the DEP's proposed rule allows the agency to grant oil and gas operators broad variances to any of the rule's requirements, without spelling out under what circumstances such variances should be approved.

"It's simply an open-ended invitation to avoid virtually any requirements of the rules," Kotcon said. "This language needs to be tightened up. Leaving it open-ended is inappropriate."

Kotcon was among seven people who spoke at Tuesday night's hearing, held at the DEP headquarters in Kanawha City. Numerous industry representatives attended, but only one of them spoke.

Mark Clark, a lawyer for the West Virginia Independent Oil and Gas Operators Association, urged DEP to clarify how the new rule impacts numerous drilling policies and guidance documents that DEP has published over the last few years.

Clark said his group supports "reasoned and focused" regulation of the drilling industry, but also believes DEP should not include a variety of newly required plans - such as one governing water management -- to be part of enforceable agency permits.

DEP proposed the new drilling rules to implement the bill passed by lawmakers during last December's special session as an effort to respond to growing citizen concerns about the Marcellus Shale drilling boom.

But Beth Little, another Sierra Club representative, noted that a legislative committee's proposal for a bill was a compromise that was then further weakened by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

"There are many protections beyond what the Legislature gave us that we would like to see," Little said.

Julie Archer of the West Virginia Surface Owners' Rights Organization urged DEP to add language that would require inspectors to provide reports to citizens who file complaints about problems with drilling or production sites.

"We don't feel like this is too much to ask," Archer said. "It would give the public some confidence that DEP is actually taking some action in response to their concerns."

Dave McMahon, a lawyer who represents surface landowners in drilling cases, said DEP needs to make it easier for surface owners to understand their right to comment on permits proposed for drilling on their land.

McMahon held up a thick copy of the packet surface owners currently get to notify them of drilling proposals, and said that the part explaining their rights to comment doesn't show up until page 42.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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